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Being an exceptional communicator: How to talk so your team will listen, how to listen so your team will talk

Last year (2022), Visier surveyed 2,100 UK employees and found that 43% of people have left a job because of their manager. They also found that 53% of people who are thinking of resigning say the reason is their manager(1).

The most common attributes given for a “bad manager” were:

  • Failure to listen 49%
  • Being unapproachable 47%
  • Treating team members differently 43%
  • Shouting at the team 42%

These findings are troubling to say the least. But the good news is that if you want to stand out and retain your staff, a simple place to start would be doing the opposite of the above.

One of the biggest challenges faced by many of the leaders I work with is how to get the best out of their people, particularly in a hybrid or global environment, where interactions are often online. Although people are, sadly, reticent to devote time to in-person meetings, I find that one of the most lasting outcomes of offsite and team-builds is the genuine connections forged through quality time spent on collaborative work, combined with plenty of downtime hanging out and chatting!

As it’s clearly cost-prohibitive to replicate the offsite formula day to day, a more realistic route to success is honing your communication skills.

This article explains why it’s important for leaders not only to be good communicators but to be exceptional and provides some ideas about how you can do just that.

“Perhaps the best conversationalist in the world is the man [or woman] who helps others to talk.” – John Steinbeck

What is exceptional communication?

It’s scary that almost half the managers in the study quoted above failed to listen to their people.

I remember watching a three-part BBC TV series where Sir Gerry Robinson was tasked with “fixing the NHS.” One of his suggested solutions was for the Chief Executive to get out from behind his desk and to walk around checking in with his team on the shop floor. It made all the difference! (2)

This approach ties in with the MBWA (managing by wandering around) method devised by William Hewlett and David Packard, founders of Hewlett Packard (HP), as reported in Tom Peters’ book, In Search of Excellence, which prompted many leaders to do the same.

Perhaps the pace of change, combined with the pressures of the pandemic have made this a dying art which needs to be resurrected? To do this yourself, schedule walking meetings rather than Teams 121s and talk to your team about what you can do to gather together, for ‘downtime’ conversations as well as work-related ones. And, bonus, you’ll all get your steps up as a result!

I’ll never forget coaching someone years ago called Anna, who was overwhelmed with work. She had two part-time jobs to do alongside her studies. One day, her lecturer ‘accidentally’ bumped into her at college and ask how she was doing. Anna felt like bursting into tears at this kindness and confessed that she was finding it hard to manage. Her lecturer told her she could postpone the deadline for her next assignment. This took the pressure off and enabled Anna to step back and make a plan. It also taught her – when she became a leader herself – how important it is to take those opportunities to chat with your team, and to listen to what they say.

Five ingredients of exceptional communication

Let’s go on to explore five of the key ingredients of exceptional communication. These are:

  1. Displaying emotional intelligence
  2. Adapting your communication style
  3. Using questioning skills
  4. Listening as a gift
  5. Building rapport

You’ll find more about each of these qualities below.

1. Displaying emotional intelligence

Although emotional intelligence (also known as EI or EQ) is dismissed by some as a ‘soft’ skill only accessed by ‘touchy feely’ leaders, it is the single most important quality to develop if you want to get the best out of your people.

In my book, Leading with Gravitas, I divide EI into four segments:

  • Self-awareness: Knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Considering how you react, especially when under pressure. Tapping into your emotions and realising what they are telling you
  • Self-management: In stressful situations, allowing yourself to pause so you get greater self-control and clarity about your options. Learning from your mistakes so you can shape your future experiences
  • Social awareness: Understanding how others respond to you. Using your sensory skills to be aware of what’s going on for them
  • Relationship management: Adapting your behaviour to get the best out of your relationships

For more on this, you might also like to read my article Emotional Versatility: The key to powerful communication

2. Adapting your communication style

Use your emotional intelligence to recognise what blend of support and direction your people need from you at different times, and flex your style accordingly.

You might know the Situational Leadership model:

  • A new starter might need high direction (because they don’t yet know what they’re doing), but low support (because they’re enthusiastic about their new job)
  • After three months or so they still need high direction (because they’re still learning), but now need high support as well (because they’ve started hitting the inevitable hurdles that come with every job)
  • Another three months passes and now they no longer need much direction (because they know what they’re doing) but they still need high support (to assure them they’re doing it ‘right’)
  • Three months on, they have will have developed expertise. If you give them too much support, you’re seen as an irrelevant cheerleader. If you give them too much direction, you’re seen as a micro-manager. This is where the coach approach works best, where you work out together what support they need, when and how.

You might find this a useful tool to objectively discuss with your people the style of leadership they need from you at any point, and to inform discussions with your own boss around how to get the best out of you.

Note that an ‘expert’ can jump straight back to the start if you give them a new task they’re unfamiliar with and unclear about. In this case, don’t delegate completely or they’ll feel abandoned and that you’ve abdicated your role as a leader. You’ll have to provide high direction again, at least to start with.

Unless someone asks you for specific direction, don’t be tempted to tell them what to do or how to think. If so, you’re disempowering them. Relax! You don’t have to be the heroic leader who has all the answers. In many cases, you can trust people to find their own solutions. Keep quiet and allow them to get there themselves.

In this amusing 15-minute TEDx talk by Michael Bungay Stanier, you’ll find out why it’s not a good idea to give advice and three great questions to ask. Watch ‘How to tame your advice monster’ at this link:

3. Using questioning skills

“If you want to be a good conversationalist, be a good listener. To be interesting, be interested.” – Dale Carnegie

The extent to which people engage with you is largely down to your questioning ability. Ask a wishy-washy question (or none at all) and don’t be surprised when you get a wishy-washy response in return.

To become an exceptional conversationalist, ask open questions that start: “Why…”, “What…”, “How…”, “What if…”. Avoid closed questions that can be answered with just one word, and don’t use forced-choice questions where you suggest options. Let them use their own words to reply.

Then ask probing questions to dig a little deeper and find out more. Encourage the other person to open up by using verbal and non-verbal signals, such as saying: “Uhuh” and smiling – you may need to subtly exaggerate this if online.

If you’ve asked a tricky question, note that they may take time to think of a reply. Pause, hold the silence, and let them respond without prompting.

4. Listening as a gift

Imagine this. You have some significant and emotional information to share. You tell one person, and they interrupt by diving straight in with their own equivalent to your story. You tell another person who simply nods and smiles as you talk, but doesn’t say a word until you’ve got the whole thing off your chest.

Which response gives you the better experience?

In summary, when someone truly feels heard, you’ve given them a real gift. And that’s one of the things that makes you an exceptional communicator, and a great leader.

“If you want to be listened to, you should put in time listening.” – Marge Piercy

As part of the research for my book, Leading with Gravitas, I examined the qualities shared by those who exemplify this invaluable quality. I found that gravitas is not about shouting the loudest or saying the most: often it’s the reverse. People with gravitas are usually the ones who are intently listening, reflecting on what’s being said and asking incisive questions, so that when they speak, what they say is intelligent, relatable and on point.

To hone your listening skills, focus your mind, body and spirit on being in the moment, with that other person or group. Give the conversation your full attention.

Use active listening. Reflect back a summary of what you heard the other person say, using their own language to show you’ve understood where they are coming from.

Notice if the other person’s tone of voice and body language are congruent with their words. If they say: “I’m fine” but their voice is quiet, they’re looking down and their shoulders are hunched, it’s a big clue that they might not be as fine as they claim.

When someone is speaking, it’s OK for them to look away while they think what to say next. When you’re listening, you need to maintain eye contact as this shows them you are paying attention.

5. Building rapport

To create rapport, the classic advice is to match or mirror the other person’s posture, breathing pattern, word choice, pace and volume. This is great as long as it comes naturally rather than artificially, which is far easier with people who you like or are like you in some way.

Build rapport with a more diverse range of people takes practice.

  • Think of a person you want to develop rapport with. Consider how their goals might fit with your own. Think win:win. Imagine what you’d like to see, hear and feel when you have a strong connection with them
  • Try building rapport with people you’re not naturally drawn to. You’ll be amazed how enriching those connections turn out to be
  • Talk to people who have a different point of view to your own, and practice trying to understand their perspective. Notice how this changes their attitude towards you
  • Find ways to share your thoughts, opinions and ideas in a way that’s interesting to someone else
  • Approach all interactions with a spirit of generosity – even passing conversations you have when you’re out and about – and notice what impact it has

There’s more on this in the Connection chapter of my book, Leading with Gravitas

What next?

This article has given you an overview and some practical tips. Obviously, there’s a lot more to learn about the subject.

Exceptional communication is an outcome of all our leadership development Courses. Please get in touch to find out more.

If you’d like to enhance your own communication skills, take a look at our open course calendar.

To find out more about our coaching packages:

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Antoinette Dale Henderson

The Gravitas Coach

Antoinette is an executive coach, keynote speaker and two-time author with over 25 years’ experience in leadership communications, including 16 years holding senior positions in some of the world’s top PR agencies.

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To discuss how Antoinette and her team can accelerate your success, book a call now!

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